Why I want to move to South Africa

I keep my own secrets very poorly.  In this post, I want to explain publicly why I’m hoping to move to South Africa for the next stage of my career.

Since I have mentioned the BRICS prominently in this blog, it should be no surprise that I’m planning to move to a country with an emerging economy.  Let’s look at the possibilities: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.  As I mentioned in my Brazil post, I speak no Portuguese, and so living there would isolate me linguistically.  I haven’t said much of Russia, but I’ll simply say that I am uninterested in contributing to an economy that lines the pockets of Vladimir Putin and his friends.  In India and China, I would stand apart from the crowd ethnically, and I think that would marginalize me.  In South Africa, I would be part of an existing ethnic minority (in 2011, the white population stood at 9%).  Although only 9.6% of the population speaks English as a first language (the nation has eleven official languages), the language is widely understood because it is the language most frequently appearing in the media and in government.

In reading the history and literature of South Africa over the last several months, I’ve often felt that the ethnically European population of South Africa made the same mistakes that white Americans might have made in the same situation.  The black/white ratio is flipped between the two countries (the black population of the United States is around 12.6%, while in South Africa this group stands at 79.2%).  Both countries have struggled to overcome the policy mistakes of the past.  The United States Civil War ended in 1865, but the following twelve years of Reconstruction did not erase the disparity in economic standing between the Union and former Confederacy; in fact, the average income of the eleven former Confederate states lags behind the national average to this day ($36,350 versus $40,584).  This is to say nothing of erasing the many differences in opportunity between black and white citizens, only some of which were improved through the Black Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.  In the century and a half since the end of the Civil War, racial equality remains elusive in the United States.

South Africa has existed as a single country since 1909, when the Second Algo-Boer War brought Transvaal and Orange Free State together with the Cape Colony and Natal to form one British nation with home rule.  From its beginnings, the Union created structural barriers to forestall racial equality, but matters took a distinct turn for the worse with the election of the National Party to government leadership in 1948.  In a nutshell, the National Party was able to play on the fears of the white population of what would happen if the black population gained power.  The Apartheid (“apart-hood”) legislation separated the population into racial classes, compelled the black population to move away from designated white areas, forced blacks to carry passbooks or face arrest, and limited education to English and Afrikaans in the cities.  The goal of these laws was to force the black population into “Bantustans,” leaving the best lands to white cities and farms (this has some parallels with the reservations into which native American populations were forced).  Guaranteeing voting rights to all citizens of South Africa only became possible after the complete collapse of Apartheid policy in the early 1990s.  Since that key 1994 election, South Africa has attempted to jump-start economic growth in the communities that were so comprehensively held down by Apartheid legislation.  Given that the National Party had 46 years to destroy economic growth in the black population under Apartheid, it is unsurprising that the damage has not been erased by only twenty years of sometimes constructive policy.

South Africa faces pressing medical challenges, particularly because of the living conditions in its townships.  These settlements, originally created under the Group Areas Act of 1950, were specified areas where each non-white race group would be compelled to live rather than in white areas of the cities.  Townships frequently include nearby informal settlements, where people live in shacks built from scavenged materials.  The infrastructure of these settlements is hugely lacking.  Sewerage, water supply, and electricity have improved in the last twenty years, but many problems remain.  These areas are breeding grounds for tuberculosis (TB) and HIV.  Because of modern health care and epidemiological methods like “contact tracing,” TB has not recently been a huge problem in the United States.  The fraction of the population in South African townships dealing with active TB infections, however, means that essentially everyone in the townships faces some amount of exposure to the disease.  Migration into the townships has led to the development of TB strains that are multiply drug resistant (MDR) or extensively drug resistant (XDR).  South Africa needs all the assistance it can receive to improve TB diagnosis and treatment; ideally, a reliable vaccine will be created to counter this public health threat.

Helpfully, South Africa has substantial biotechnology infrastructure in place.  The Gates Foundation, for example, has enabled South African Laboratories to make use of modern nucleic acid sequencing technology at reduced prices.  During my visit to South Africa in November of 2014, I toured a collection of laboratories that had been equipped with state-of-the-art mass spectrometry equipment.  In fact, I was in Cape Town when I saw an operating Orbitrap Fusion for the first time.  South Africa is gearing up to face these biomedical challenges.  They need people with bioinformatics training; it was clear to me that the South African researchers in this area have their hands quite full.

This is what makes me feel that I can make a real difference by moving to South Africa.  Millions of people are at significant risk from TB, and medical research is essential to protecting this population and treating people who develop the disease.  I hope to have the chance to train others in my field, as well, paving the way for the next generation of indigenous researchers.  This is why I want to move to South Africa.  I believe that by doing so, my life will have a bigger impact than if I stayed here, in my comfort zone!

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4 thoughts on “Why I want to move to South Africa

  1. Amanda

    I am so proud of you! Not many people have the courage to step outside of their comfort zone in such a huge way. It is definitely a loss for your community here, but South Africa is lucky to be getting you. Your passion for helping others is a beautiful thing to witness.

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  2. MaryDennis

    Not at all surprised at your decision, David You have always struck me as a man with so much knowledge to share, one who has felt frustrated that he is not sharing with the right people. I know that you and South Africa will benefit richly from your work there. Don’t forget us back home; hopefully you will keep NIH posted as you move along.

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  3. Pingback: Johnny Clegg: the Spirit of the Great Heart | Picking Up The Tabb

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